NEW YORK (MainStreet) — For many Americans, having a job is bundled up with pride and purpose, a major contributor to their overall well-being. When we become unemployed, it's not just the bank account that takes a hit — self-worth and happiness can take a nosedive as well. Americans take the job hunt, and unemployment, very personally. But is this a purely American problem, and do other countries have a better answer?
"I feel like a loser, I'm 25 and still live with mommy and daddy," says Leah Salomoni of Shelton, Conn. She is one of the 3.8 million unemployed Americans who have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, and her sentiment is probably a common one.
"The trend is, over time, in the American case, to think 'something is wrong with me,'" says Ofer Sharone, an assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who recently authored the book Flawed System, Flawed Self: Job Searching and Unemployment Experiences. For his book, Sharone interviewed and compared job seekers in both America and Israel. Americans, he found, tended to heavily blame themselves.
The social game
Networking often plays a crucial role in finding a job in the United States. Since creating a good social chemistry between the interviewer and the applicant is a high priority, failing to do so can be seen as a personality flaw.
"When you're networking and trying to have people like you, and in a job interview you get rejected, it's understood as being evaluated and rejected. Many job seekers might compare it to dating," says Sharone.
The unbalanced social aspect of the job search can be debilitating for those who don't know the right people, or don't have the opportunity to find them. Salomoni, for example, says she isn't entirely confident in "playing the game" right or "schmoozing," and isn't sure if she should be making follow-ups for interviews. Yet when almost all online job ads come with a line that reads "no phone calls or walk-ins, please," there's little room for it in the first place. She keeps an excel sheet with all the places she has applied to over the past year-plus of unemployment, but hasn't gotten any interviews.
Statistically speaking, it takes a long while to become employed again. According to a new study out of Princeton University, 30% of workers who were polled as being long-term unemployed between 2008 and 2012 were still looking for work 15 months later. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average duration for unemployment is 37.1 weeks. So when someone is unemployed for a long while, it's more than just not reflecting on career choices and resume re-designs: being unemployed can become a meditation on whether or not this unemployment status is due to personal shortcomings.
"It's super depressing," says Salomoni, who has been in the news industry for several years. "I try not to take it personally...I'm capable, I'm a good writer, I can pick things up quickly, but when people don't pick me up, I'm kind of like 'O.K., then what are you looking for?'"
No ideal system
Other countries are different, but perhaps not better. In Israel, there's a more rigid hiring process that relies heavily on hiring agencies and a series of tests that can last all day. For example, applicants might be ordered to interact with a group while being observed by a psychologist. Many job-seekers couldn't see the point of the tests, and rather than feeling at fault for personal inadequacies, they turned their aggravation toward the country's hiring process. Here are a few brief examples of the hiring process in other countries:
- In Israel, a referral is seen as a kind of favor that you only do if it's a very close relationship. In this way, networking is uncommon. Applicants might be given "day-long" tests that can involve being evaluated by a psychologist while performing group work, Sharone found. Israeli job seekers might think these tests are random and unrelated to their job, and blame the system during long-time unemployment.
- Over in China, there's a bigger stake in one's educational background, says Amethyst Wytiu, the COO for Next Step China, a company that offers language-immersion programs and teaching opportunities in China. While chemistry between the applicant and hiring manager is important, "Your resume is usually valued more than your attitude," says Wytiu.
- In the Czech Republic, "people here, as they are there [in America], are increasingly frustrated and feel they cannot make headway," says Michael Mayher, a direct search headhunter who relocated from America to Prague 13 years ago. While there are many similarities in the social aspect of the job hunt, he says that support groups for job-seekers—meetings where the unemployed can speak openly about their feelings as well as share job-searching advice—are uncommon in Europe.
In America, however, job-loss support groups can help "lessen the sting" of unemployment, Sharone says, referencing his research. In some instances, long-term unemployment can be severely debilitating. Sharone pointed out one extreme example of a man who became suicidal after a stint of joblessness facilitated the dissolution his marriage. While most people won't get to that point, it does exemplify the danger of seeing a job as one of the key factors to feel a sense of self worth.
Research published in 2011 by Rutgers University's John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development found that the majority of the unemployed felt shameful of their status and that their joblessness significantly impacted the relationship with their family, and about a tenth had to seek psychological help. For those who are finding their unemployment to be detrimental to their well-being, it helps to keep it in perspective.
"People need to realize it's not their fault, and there's other people out there like them," says Sharone.
But unfortunately, for many people, the solution is finding a job, and the process becomes cyclical.
--Written by Craig Donofrio for MainStreet